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Notes from the Bureau: Form Follows Formula

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Photos by Jen Lindhe

When Danish architect Bjarke Ingels graduated from Gammel Hellerup Gymnasium, a private high school just north of Copenhagen, he couldn’t have predicted that one day he’d be back—to redesign it. When the school principal sought to create a new multipurpose sports facility on campus, he called up his former math student whose career he had been following.

Ingels and his team at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) had to first overcome some tricky site challenges. “Because the campus is in an urban center, there wasn’t a lot of space,” explains architect and BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann. “There were some adjacent soccer fields, but to place a building on a soccer field was next to sacrilege.”

The courtyard of the school was the only viable space for the hall, but building it there would mean losing the outdoor space. The designers came up with a creative solution: submerge the hall underground and create an aboveground outdoor space on the roof. This wouldn’t be just any roof, though. In honor of Ingels’s former- math-teacher-turned-client, the architect based the design of the roof’s curvature on a mathematical formula taken from the game of handball, Denmark’s national pastime. “We designed the curve of the roof to mimic the curve of the ballistic arch you get when you throw the ball,” Bergmann explains.

The curved roof, like the building itself, serves more than one function: above grade, it acts as an informal gathering space that the students call the “molehill,” and below ground, it provides an uninterrupted, open-plan space for sports and school functions like dances and graduation ceremonies. Thanks to its underground location, the hall enjoys a climate-controlled environment. Passive-lighting strategies include reveals around the beams that allow daylight to wash into the space below, creating the appearance of a floating ceiling above the concrete walls and varying light conditions as the sun moves throughout the sky. A limited materials palette includes site-cast concrete (a rarity in Denmark) and ipê wood that weathers well.

“It was a really fun project not only for us but for the contractors, CG Jensen,” Bergmann says. “They took great pride in having built this.” And it seems that school pride also is on the rise: the school reports an enrollment increase of 20–30% .

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